Community Land = Community Resilience: How Community Land Trusts Can Support Urban Affordable Housing and Climate Initiatives

Housing insecurity and the impacts of climate change are two interrelated issues increasingly affecting cities across the United States. This report provides an overview of how community land trusts (CLTs) can present a solution to help cities mitigate both of these challenges by promoting community ownership and decisionmaking and providing permanently affordable and resilient housing. CLTs are nonprofit organizations with community-led governing structures that hold land in trust for the benefit of the community, often providing and preserving affordable housing, stewarding community amenities like parks and greenspace, and providing low-cost commercial properties that can support small businesses and economic resilience. Drawing from nine detailed case studies and other examples, the report presents legal and policy recommendations for how cities and states can better enable CLTs while integrating features like green infrastructure and renewable energy that promote urban resilience and sustainability initiatives. As new investments reach cities, including funding related to COVID-19 relief and recovery, there will be new opportunities to advance CLTs and other community-centered approaches to help the people most heavily impacted by housing insecurity and climate change.

Local and state policymakers, community land trusts, and other community-serving partners can use this report to identify legal and policy changes to catalyze CLTs and other public-private partnerships that serve communities affected by housing instability and climate change impacts.

The report begins by laying out the dual and overlapping challenges of housing instability and climate change impacts, both of which disproportionately affect lower-income and communities of color. Both have also been exacerbated by the added stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020. As noted in the report, nearly half of renters in the U.S. are severely housing cost-burdened, defined as spending 50% or more of their income on rent, with Black, Hispanic, and Native American residents much more likely to face these severe cost burdens. Across the country, 1 in 5 renters and 1 in 10 homeowners with a mortgage are behind on payments. Cost-burdened residents more often reside in housing that is more susceptible to extreme weather events, and are less likely to be able to take on costs to mitigate extreme weather risks through, for example, weatherization, floodproofing, or air conditioning. Additionally, redlined neighborhoods in urban areas are disproportionately experiencing gentrification pressures, further exacerbating housing insecurity.

The report next describes how CLTs are organized and operate, and why they can provide viable and permanent solutions for affordable housing as well as help to build more resilient and sustainable communities. CLTs provide affordable housing by separating land ownership from ownership (or rental) of improvements on the land. CLTs acquire land through purchase or donation, and then build or retrofit housing on the land, and the housing is sold or rented to lower-income residents at affordable rates while an interest to the underlying land is provided as a “ground lease” for a small annual fee. This approach significantly reduces the cost of homeownership and also preserves affordability over time.

CLTs provide unique opportunities to help address deficiencies in existing local affordable housing strategies, which are, across the board, failing to meet the needs of lower-income residents. The report details these benefits, which in addition to ensuring affordability and increasing housing stability include: 

  • Community empowerment and control, as CLTs operate through a tripartite governing structure, which includes CLT residents, broader community members, and other public and private stakeholders (e.g., local nonprofits and businesses) in decisionmaking.
  • Wealth-building opportunities, as the shared-equity model provides residents a portion of the appreciation in home value at resale (with the remainder helping the CLT to preserve affordability for future owners);
  • Reducing displacement and counteracting gentrification pressures;
  • Supporting social cohesion, through stewardship of community amenities like parks, gardens, and community centers; and 
  • Providing tailored services for residents, such as financial counseling, job training, youth programs; among other benefits.

CLTs can also benefit communities by helping to steward land for resilience and sustainability initiatives; these opportunities are expanded upon in greater detail in the report and illustrated through examples from the CLT case studies. For example, some CLTs are including green features that help reduce carbon emissions and increase resilience of housing and community amenities, like renewable energy, weatherization, and parks and green infrastructure features. They are also promoting economic resilience by providing affordable commercial space that can help prevent displacement of businesses and nonprofits that have long served the community. CLTs can also play an important role in managed retreat (or managed relocation) strategies by helping to plan and design affordable “receiving” areas and helping communities at high risk of flooding to relocate together to these higher-ground areas.

Building on examples from state and local policies in the U.S. and Europe, the report provides detailed policy recommendations for how local and state governments can enable the scaling up of CLT approaches and thereby promote housing affordability and resilience. This includes:

  • Promoting access to land, by reforming policies to reduce what is often the biggest barrier for CLTs -- the price of land. These approaches can include legal reforms allowing below-market-rate sales and donations of land, revision of tax-foreclosure sale rules, and utilization of land banks to transfer land to CLTs, among other approaches.
  • Providing start-up funding and technical assistance, such as through seed grants, assistance with developing legal agreements and navigating legal requirements related to incorporation and taxation, or capacity-building programs for CLT staff.
  • Helping CLTs access different sources of project funding and financing, such as by expanding eligible uses for housing trust funds, consolidating and aligning funding programs to ease administrative and reporting requirements, and working with CLTs to support disaster recovery (opening up additional federal funds).
  • Providing tax incentives, such as ensuring tax fairness and that CLT homeowners do not pay taxes on the full-market price of their housing given the shared-equity and restricted-resale model of CLTs, and encouraging private donation of land to land trusts through tax incentives.

The report was published in January 2021 by the Georgetown Climate Center, with support from the Summit Foundation. It was developed to inform the Community Land Ownership section of the Center’s Equitable Adaptation Legal and Policy Toolkit. As part of this report, detailed case studies were developed on CLTs in nine U.S. and European jurisdictions: Boston, Massachusetts; Seattle and King County, Washington; Albuquerque, New Mexico; the Florida Keys, Florida; Oakland, California; Irvine, California; the State of Louisiana; Bristol, United Kingdom; and Brussels, Belgium.

Publication Date: January 2021

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